Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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Christiansen, Morten H. and Simon Kirby (2003) Language Evolution, Oxford University Press.
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/14/14-1923.html
Emmanuelle Labeau, Aston University, Birmingham (UK)
Language Evolution is intended to bring together all the major perspectives on language evolution illustrated not only in the various areas of linguistics (psycholinguistics, computational linguistics...) but also in disciplines as varied as psychology, primatology, philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, biology, neuroscience, neuropsychology or cognitive science. An original feature of the book is that the individual chapters were submitted for discussion to advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students at Cornell University and fine-tuned on the basis of their electronic questions. The editors suggest this enables the volume to be used as a textbook for courses on the origin and the evolution of language.
In the first chapter, the editors present the book that aims at understanding the complex nature of language, seen as the characteristic feature of humanity, and at giving an accessible overview of its evolution. That once popular field provoked such outlandish speculations in the nineteenth century that it was banned from the Société de Linguistique de Paris in 1866 and neglected for more than a century hence the need for a state of the art.
Steven Pinker opens with Language as an adaptation to the cognitive niche. He starts by discussing the design of the language faculty, including words, grammar and interfaces with other parts of the mind. He then discusses the theory of language as an adaptation before exploring reasons for which language evolves. He concludes with a presentation of new genetic tests that may support the claim that language is an adaptation.
In The language mosaic and its evolution, James R. Hurford starts by recapitulating a list of biological pre-adaptations to language readiness, such as a pre-phonetic ability to perform speech sounds due to the low position of vocal cords. He then describes cultural evolution of languages such as grammaticalization and concludes on lessons to be learnt from recent computer modeling of language development.
Frederick J. Newmeyer asks the rather paradoxical question What can the field of linguistics tell us about the origins of language? The first part of the paper explains the reluctance of linguists to tackle the topic, neglected by theoretical linguistics as coming under biological sciences, inaccessible to the usual tools of historical linguistics and not in tune with the widespread uniformitarian hypothesis that all languages are equal. In recent years, a better understanding of linguistic theories joined with sophisticated techniques of formal modeling as well as a better knowledge of the vocal tract evolution have led to a change of attitude among researchers.
Derek Bickerton's attempt to present a framework covering all the processes that provoked the emergence of human language relies on Symbol and structure. Symbols multiplied to express new things whilst structures remained limited hence leading to a proto-language.
Michael Tomasello pursues on the same two concepts in On the different origins of symbol and grammar. He considers them from the point of view of the most basic cognitive and communicative processes involved for example in human children and chimpanzee's language.
Terrence W. Deacon explores UG and semiotic constraints in his contribution. He argues that universals play an important role in language but that some major aspects of the UG are neither biological nor cultural such as semiotic constraints. These are selection pressures that speed evolution towards forms that effectively communicate by not violating them.
Iain Davidson brings an archaeologist's viewpoint to the problem in The archaeological evidence of language origins: States of art. He underlines the fact that much of our knowledge comes from the state of the archaeology of art and leaves therefore many questions unanswered.
In What are the uniquely human components of the language faculty, Marc D. Hauser & W. Tecumseh Fitch research whether other species share the mechanisms underlying speech production and perception. As some do, the authors argue that such mechanisms did not evolve for speech production or perception, but for other communicative or cognitive functions.
Michael A. Arbib questions in The evolving mirror system: a neural basis for language readiness Chomsky's hypothesis that our genetic constitution encompasses grammar, given the brief period for which we know languages in comparison with the long history of the Homo Sapiens. The author suggests that the first Homo Sapiens used a form of vocal communication that evolved culturally through invention that took advantage of the pre-adaptation of a ''language-ready'' brain but did not encode general properties such as grammar.
Michael C. Corballis offers in his contribution Gestural origins of language an overall evolution scenario from the emergence of bipedalism when hominids developed more sophisticated ways to gesture to one another. He suggests that the face became increasingly involved in gesturing as sophisticated tools occupied the hands. The progressive addition of sounds to facial gestures would have allowed many gestures to retreat within the mouth where they still appear in pronunciation.
Robin I. M. Dunbar explores in The origin and the subsequent evolution of language the questions of why the language evolved in the first place and why languages are prone to diversification. He explores both the technological and social functions to provide elements for an answer to the first question and selects the hypothesis of social bounding for the second.
Michael Studdert-Kennedy & Louis Goldstein reflect in Launching language: The gestural origin of discrete infinity on the role of discrete infinity, the property by which language constructs an infinite variety of messages from a limited number of forms. They come to the conclusion that, under pressure for intelligible exchange, the vocal apparatus differentiated into lips, tongue tip, tongue body, tongue root, velum and larynx which made it capable of effecting discrete changes. Different languages would have then expanded and developed the basic gestural phonology thanks to attunement through vocal mimicry, which leads to a differentiation of gestures produced by a given organ and a coordination of gestures into more complex structures.
Philip Lieberman in Motor Control, Speech and the evolution of human language attempts to demonstrate that evolution is evident when examining the anatomical specialization and neural mechanisms that make human speech and language possible.
Simon Kirby & Morten H. Christiansen discuss the uniqueness of human language inasmuch as it is learned in From language learning to language evolution. They first look at the way in which language learning leads naturally to language variation, and what the constraints on this variation reveal about language acquisition. They then introduce a computational model of sequential learning the natural bias of which mirrors human biases. They go on studying how learning biases can lead to language universals by introducing the iterative learning model, a model of linguistic transmission. Finally, they consider the implications of their research for linguistic and evolutionary theory and argue that linguistic structure arises from the interaction between learning, culture, and evolution.
In Grammatical assimilation Ted Briscoe reviews arguments for and against the emergence and maintenance of an innate language acquisition device via genetic assimilation.
The final chapter on Language, learning and evolution by Natalia L. Komarova & Martin A. Nowak aims to show how methods of formal language theory, learning theory, and evolutionary biology can be combined to perfect the understanding of the origins and the properties of the human language.
As appears from this brief overview, the present volume offers a very interdisciplinary approach to a field that was excluded from linguistic research for more than a century, as it was felt as inducing wild hypotheses. The place of linguistics as such is therefore restricted quantitatively but also qualitatively as language evolution refers to emergence of the language faculty rather to changes within given systems.
Much of the once maligned hypothetical nature of the discussion remains despite the ingenuity of the theories and the use of sometimes very sophisticated methodologies. Although hypotheses presented in the book, for example the gestural origin of language (Corballis), are fascinating they are only hypotheses that are hotly debated (Dunbar rejects the gestural explanation as ''not making sense''). Indeed, Davidson's contribution is quite refreshing in its honesty about the scope of data to which we have no access. Even if you don't need to be made aware if this, the collection of papers proves nonetheless fascinating reading.
While contributors come from widely different disciplines, they have managed to make their research accessible to non-specialists. Technical terms and concepts are kept to the minimum and clearly explained. The chapter format is helpful with suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter, even if one may wonder about the general order in which papers appear.
To conclude, the book does what it claims: offer an interdisciplinary approach for whom it claims: advanced students who would appreciate the accessible level and recommended readings.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Emmanuelle Labeau is a lecturer in French in the School of Languages and European Studies of Aston University (Birmingham). Her PhD dissertation (2002) was entitles "The Acquisition of French past tenses by tutored Anglophone advanced learners: is aspect enough?". She is more generally interested in time and aspect of the French past tenses, as shown by the two volumes she co-edited with Pierre Larrivée, Les temps du passé français et leur enseignement (2002) and Nouveaux développements de l'IMP (forthcoming).